Melanie Bernier remembers with particular fondness a concert some years ago at Gay Gardens, an underground venue that shuttered in 2012.
“Everyone was painted green, and there was a pickle involved, and it was kind of a play, but also a music thing. I can’t be more specific than that,” she says, laughing. “I just remember pickles. But you know, you don’t see that at the Sinclair.”
Bernier is a Cambridge artist and member of the Boston-based garage band the Barbazons. Gay Gardens and other now-defunct DIY (do-it-yourself) music venues are the subject of her ongoing series “Thank You For Your Service." Using found materials such as denim and leather, Bernier has (so far) hand-stitched and embroidered six flags in honor of some of her favorite underground Allston music venues — lofts, basements, warehouses — that, before they shut down, thrived as defiant havens for punk rock and progressive values.
“I got into punk when I was young, and was having a hard time at home,” says Bernier, 30. “So it was an escape from that. I needed to find a community, and that’s where I found it. These house shows, they’re very intimate, in that this is someone’s living space.”
The flags resemble something you might find hanging in a VFW hall or Elks lodge—subdued in color, but plainly dignified. “I think I just kind of intuitively created symbology for each one,” says Bernier. “The Butcher Shoppe has the moon cycle on it because I remember being there very late all the time. It was always dark.”
Bernier’s Butcher Shoppe flag and its five siblings are each carefully embroidered with the name of a venue and the Allston street where it was once found. They hang in the creaky, sunlit workshop in Central Square that Bernier shares with two other artists.
The Butcher Shoppe, a house on Armington Street, was famous for hosting punk and psychedelic bands from Boston and around the country. Its medieval-looking flag is olive green with yellow tassels and the phases of the moon arranged like checkers against wavy stitching. Uncle Crummy’s, a loft on Penniman Road, is memorialized with a Bermuda Triangle-inspired design, because, as Bernier puts it, “it was its own place where you went and lost track of everything.”
What We Talk About When We Talk About Us, another Penniman loft, gets a nautical treatment and big embroidered crosses, which Bernier sees as symbols of both healing and sacredness. The venues, she says, were “healing places ... necessary and vital.”
“I think that the houses that have shows are giving a lot to a community,” says Bernier. “And in the moment it’s like, yeah, this is a loud place where kids are drinking and making rock ‘n’ roll and it can seem a little superfluous, but I think in reality it creates an amazing space for non-commercial art to flourish.”
Bernier began “Thank You For Your Service” in the spring of 2014. She was inspired by a well-documented crackdown on DIY venues during the two years prior. Gay Gardens was raided in 2012, Uncle Crummy’s in 2013. A nuisance-control ordinance passed in 2012 leveraged hefty fines against “unruly gatherings.” An apparent push by Boston police to infiltrate the house show subculture was widely mocked and decried on social media and even covered in Slate.
Yet, despite operating outside the law, basement and house shows fulfill a vital role in the live music ecosystem, according to Bernier.
“The values of punk can be very anti-consumer. And when you’re playing in a bar, essentially you’re there to promote the sale of alcohol. And you’re there to make money for someone: a club owner,” she says. “Sometimes these places don’t take the musicians very seriously, they don’t treat them well. ... But also, sometimes people are making music that is not commercially viable. And you need a space for that, too.”
Underground venues provide a much-needed space to the under-21 set, who can’t attend concerts in most clubs. Unfortunately this also makes house shows a target by law enforcement for underage drinking. And unofficial venues like those featured in Bernier’s series are never licensed and rarely up to code. Bernier remembers one particular show at Gay Gardens where someone lit a table on fire.
But that was the allure of the whole endeavor: There were no rules imposed from above or outside. Bernier remembers the venues of “Thank You For Your Service” as places where everyone was empowered to do as they chose, be it learning guitar or running a rock venue out of an apartment on a near-zero budget. Those dirt-floor basements and unfinished warehouses were centers of feverish creativity, of art for art’s sake.
“Maybe it’s for the best that they are ephemeral, in a way,” muses Bernier, who says she expects more DIY venues to close, as well as open, in the coming years. “Honestly, I kind of see this series as a bit of a love letter, or saying goodbye, to these spaces.”